Amay Tewari, Senior Photographer

Ines Ayostina ENV ’22 was busy packing for COP26, the United Nations’ 26th Climate Change Conference, when she found out that she had been named a Kerry Fellow. Ayostina, who is from Indonesia and grounds her climate change research in her home country’s vulnerability to natural disaster, said her first instinct was to call her mother in Jakarta, even though the 12-hour time difference meant that it was after midnight there. 

Ayostina is one of 23 students from the University recently selected as a Kerry Fellow for the 2021-22 academic year. A component of the Kerry Initiative, which was founded by former Secretary of State John Kerry ’66 in 2017, the Kerry Fellows Program offers students from across the University’s constituent schools the opportunity to contribute to policy research on climate change, global economic development and international diplomacy. 

“The heart of this program is research and writing, and it’s very focused on an experiential approach,” said David Wade, who leads the Kerry Initiative alongside Sona Lim GRD ’13. “They try to take some of the hardest questions in diplomacy and foreign policy and approach them the way that you would if you were a Foreign Service officer or CIA analyst or someone working, one way or another, on the frontlines of these issues.”

Wade, who is Kerry’s former chief of staff and a lecturer at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, assumed a more active role in the initiative this spring. Wade and Lim began teaching the global affairs class “American Power in the 21st Century,” which Kerry had taught in previous semesters, after Kerry stepped back from Yale to focus on his role as the inaugural Special Presidential Envoy for Climate under President Joe Biden.

Wade also worked with Kerry to design the Kerry Initiative in 2017 and explained that diversity was a priority for the architects of the program, who sought to represent a wide range of experiential backgrounds and academic interests within the fellowship. 

“I would emphasize that diversity of all kinds has always been important,” Wade said. “The goal was not to have a class of future John Kerrys. The goal was to have a class of fellows who reflect a panorama of experiences and perspectives, who are going to ask tough questions and have differing perspectives but who are all passionate about the work.”

The fellows accepted to the program represent Yale College, Yale Law School, the Yale School of Management, the Yale School of the Environment and the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. 

Several of the fellows emphasized the diversity of this year’s cohort in terms of cultural backgrounds and nationalities — lived experiences that inform the fellows’ academic interests. 

“My family is Pakistani-Kashmiri, but I’m also really interested, specifically, in U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa region and in South Asia,” Shaezmina Khan ’23 said. “That’s always been my area of focus. I’ve always wanted to understand how the wars and conflicts that are occurring in these regions are a spillover of movements unfolding in other failed states nearby.” 

Khan, who has worked in foreign policy as a legislative intern, an assistant at the UN Democracy 

Fund and as a research assistant at the Yale Law School, described her familial background as the “root” of her interest in foreign policy and international diplomacy. 

Ayostina recalled her experiences working in Indonesia, explaining that many of the communities she worked with “still can’t believe” the leadership roles she takes on because she is a young woman. 

“While I understand the importance of respecting convention, I recognized how difficult it is to initiate changes while coming from a disenfranchised group — and this is a unique, valuable perspective required to solve sustainability challenges because sustainability is distinguished not by disciplines but rather by challenges that need to be resolved,” Ayostina wrote in an email to the News. 

The fellows have also had a broad range of academic and career experiences, contributing unique perspectives to the central policy focuses of the initiative. 

Tristan Irwin GRD ’23, who recently left the U.S. Army after nine years of service, previously worked as a special operations civil affairs officer in Moldova. Irwin’s team worked to strengthen the relationship between the United States and Moldova while helping Moldovan communities become more resilient against threats that ranged from natural disaster to foreign disinformation. 

“Face-to-face outreach and engagement, small-scale development assistance projects, subject matter expert exchanges and interagency collaboration were all part of our repertoire,” Irwin wrote in an email to the News. “I enjoy the kind of work that aims to improve people’s quality of life, and the Kerry Fellowship’s focus areas are very much oriented towards that as well, though at a more strategic level.” 

Jesse Bryant GRD ’26, whose research primarily focuses on the link between climate change and white nationalism, said that he hopes he can contribute to the climate initiative by researching various external effects of climate change which members of the Kerry Initiative might not otherwise consider. 

Bryant explained that much of his research deals with white supremacist movements that perceive climate destruction as “a great opportunity to take back a white homeland.”

“Terrorism requires policy, but it also requires people knowing what the hell’s going on, and being able to talk about why people might feel that way,” Bryant said. “ It’s just bringing that kind of stuff out of the darkness, where it’s operated and continues to operate throughout the history of our country here and across the world, too.”

Several of the fellows said that the opportunity to collaborate with the rest of the cohort had been a significant draw for them in applying to the program.

Jackson du Pont ’22 compared the program’s diversity to that of the “best seminars” he has taken at Yale, which bring together a broad range of perspectives and academic experiences. 

“The fellows are just really great people,” Lim said. “Overall, they’re really great personalities, and I think everybody’s really proactive about getting to know each other and coordinating social events together. They’re interested in forming these connections that last beyond just the academic year, and they form relationships that really help them navigate both their professional and personal lives beyond the program.”

Now that the Kerry Initiative has been established for several years, Wade said, fellows have the benefit of mentorship from alumni of the program, as well as from the program’s leaders. Wade added that fellows who happened to attend COP26 were able to connect with Kerry Initiative alumni who were also in attendance, as well as with Kerry himself. 

For many of the fellows, Kerry’s influence was a driving factor in the decision to apply to the program. 

“I’m from Massachusetts, so Kerry was my home state senator and I always looked up to him,” Kerry Fellow Drew D’Alelio SOM ’22 GRD ’22 said. “A lot of his work really inspired me to work on global challenges, in particular, the Paris Agreement, and the reopening with Cuba. As someone who’s focused on climate change in my own work, and a Cuban American, his work on that was particularly inspiring. I think he was just always a personal role model.”

Bryant emphasized that the program provides a unique opportunity for the Kerry Initiative’s fellows and leaders to learn from each other. 

“I would imagine hanging out with David Wade will be cool,” Bryant said. “I think mentorship goes both ways. I have a lot of things I want to bring up with him, too.” 

Kerry served as Secretary of State from 2013 to 2017. 

Lucy Hodgman covers Student Life. She previously covered the Yale College Council for the News. Originally from Brooklyn, New York, she is a sophomore in Grace Hopper majoring in English.